Communication Tips

Boston University’s International Students and Scholars Office developed Tips for Successful Communication with International Students on September 28, 2010. We found this to be a great source to help you here at Missouri State University:

  1. LISTEN: Second language students often develop a “script” in their mind of what they want to say to you before they enter your office. Allow them to get through the script, so they feel certain that you have heard what they have to say. This can be difficult if the script is long and you can easily anticipate their question or issue.
  2. LIMIT: Limit the use of acronyms, abbreviations, jargon, colloquialisms, and idioms when speaking (or writing) to international students, even if English is their first language. Terms like “ASAP” or “on target” or “home run” or “all set” are U.S. culture-based and may have little meaning to an international student.
  3. POSSIBLE CULTURAL DIFFERENCE INDICATORS: Certain feelings and behaviors (both yours and/or the person with whom you are communicating) can be indicators that cultural differences are at play when interacting with someone from another country: frustration, taking offense, repetition, no response, inappropriate responses for the situation (i.e., nodding continuously when clearly the individual does not understand, awkward laughter, ending the conversation abruptly, seeming distracted, etc.). Allow these indicators to remind you to take a deep breath and find a different way to approach the issue or explanation.
  4. CHECK FOR UNDERSTANDING: After you have discussed an issue with a student or explained a procedure, ask for an explanation in his or her own words. Don’t just ask the student if he or she understood everything you said. This question may not confirm his or her level of understanding, since the culture of some international students dictates that saying they don’t understand shows that either you failed in your explanation or they have failed in understanding. “Do you understand what I told you?” will often be answered with a polite “Yes, thank you” as the student walks away without the vital information he or she needs.
  5. NAVIGATING BUREAUCRACY: This process is not the same in every country or culture, because strategies for getting a favorable response vary. Some approaches include working up to the most senior person in the office or organization, only accepting the answer of someone “in charge,” asking repeatedly until a favorable response is received, or only accepting the answer from a male staff member. Be clear in your message and be certain the student has understood what you said. Be patient because you may have to repeat yourself to emphasize that there are no exceptions to the policy/procedure/answer and that the answer will be the same no matter how many times the question is asked. Talk with your colleagues and supervisor about how you will deal with requests to talk to a “higher up.”
  6. HELP: You should assist international students as they work to understand U.S. customs and how “things are done here,” but do not pressure them to change their behavior or viewpoints unless the change is absolutely necessary for academic or social success or to avoid serious conflict. Consider whether the situation could be better resolved if you changed your own behavior or viewpoint.
  7. NAMES: Learn to say the names of international students correctly. Do not expect the student to select a U.S.-based nickname or shortened version of his or her name. This effort will go a long way toward making the student feel welcomed and respected.
  8. BE CURIOUS: Take the time to learn at least a little about your students’ countries of origin, customs, languages, and the larger issues of concern in their home countries (i.e., current events).
  9. DON’T GENERALIZE: Don’t assume that all students from a particular country or culture will behave or respond the same way. Likewise, do not expect a student to know what everyone in his or her country thinks about a particular topic. Like in the U.S., perspectives vary from region to region and group to group in any country.

Advising Syllabus

Cultural differences as well as communication barriers can make it challenging for both student and advisor. One of the best ways to help the advisor/advisee relationship is to develop an advising syllabus. Of course using an advising syllabus is recommended for all advisors, whether working with domestic or international students. However, discussing your advising syllabus with international students becomes even more important because of the different expectations that other countries have of academic advisors. You need to make clear the roles of both the advisor and advisee.

Students may not have an understanding of what an academic advisor does for students or vice versa. For instance, in India, students have a preset curriculum and usually do not have an advisor. They might assume that all their courses will already be chosen for them and there will be no decision-making on their part when scheduling courses. In China, an advisor does everything: schedules classes, arranges housing, talks with professors, negotiates grades at the end of the semester, and handles discipline. These differences necessitate the need for the advising syllabus to provide international students with something concrete that they can look back on when questions arise.